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Radio in Rural America

Thelma is an award-winning writer living in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She enjoys writing about rural America, especially Appalachia.

Radio in Rural America in the Early Years

In the 1930's, the Rural Electrification Authority (REA) was, without question, the driving force behind the growth of the new medium of radio in American rural communities. Having electricity in your home not only meant many household and farming tasks would be much simpler, but electricity also opened up a new level of knowledge for folks living in remote areas.

For the first time, rural citizens had access to local and national news as it was happening. One of the best examples of the impact of this information sharing, was the "Fireside Chats" delivered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the American people. In the years between 1933 and 1944, FDR addressed the nation 50 times via evening radio talks to explain the serious situations of the day such as the Great Depression and World War II. Roosevelt, who is regarded by many to be one of radio's greatest communicators, used the airwaves to restore confidence to a nation that was filled with despair. When he opened his broadcasts with the words, "my fellow Americans", all of a sudden the president was a real person and not just a politician in the White House.

Entertainment, the likes of which rural Americans had never known, was now available via the radio. Neighbors gathered together to listen to shows such as Fibber McGee and Molly, Burns and Allen and Our Miss Brooks. Jack Benny, Red Skelton and Bob Hope became welcomed household visitors. And music could be heard in the mountains, valleys and across the plains of rural America courtesy of the radio.

Does the Golden Age of Radio Still Exist?

That time period of American history when radio was in its infancy, has become known as the "Golden Age of Radio". However, this writer believes radio is still "golden" in our American rural communities.

To confirm that belief, I set out on a mission to find a small town radio station that still held a sense of appreciation and high regard from its listeners. I was looking for a community in rural America that still relied on its local radio station even in an age where television, newspapers and the internet existed and offered entertainment and information.

Kelly Epperson Owner of WPAQ


My Search for a Rural America Radio Station

My search led me to the small town of Mt. Airy, North Carolina, population a little over 10,000 people. This Blue Ridge mountain community was the birthplace and boyhood home of actor Andy Griffith and is believed to be the model for the fictional town of Mayberry.

It was in this Mayberry kind of town that I met Kelly Epperson, a man with radio literally in his blood. His father, Ralph Epperson, founded radio station WPAQ in 1948. Continuously on the air since that time, Kelly is carrying on the tradition of service to the community that was his father's dream.

The legend of Mr. Epperson lives on in the integrity with which Kelly runs WPAQ. The station (and Kelly) prides itself with programming that is a vital part of this small town ... broadcasts of the local high school football games, funeral announcements, community news and events, and much more. Listeners can even call in a birthday or anniversary greeting to honor a friend or neighbor. Kelly likes to tell about the 90+ year old lady that was celebrating her birthday. He took time out of his busy schedule to sing happy birthday to her on the air. Needless to say, she was thrilled by this act of kindness from her local hometown radio station!

Kelly has no plans for significant changes to the format of WPAQ. It worked as it is for his father, for Kelly and, most of all, for the listeners.

Mt. Airy, NC is located on the border of Virginia and North Carolina

Mt. Airy, NC is located on the border of Virginia and North Carolina

What the Listeners Have to Say About Their Local Radio Station

Talking to the owner and staff members at WPAQ gave me the sense that I was on the right track. Or maybe I should say the radio station is on the right track to giving their audience what they need and want to hear. However, to get the true feeling of the success of that endeavor, it was necessary to actually speak to the most important people...the listeners.

Kelly Epperson graciously allowed me and my husband 3 hours of airtime on a Saturday afternoon to accept calls on the air from the folks of Mt. Airy and the surrounding area. Amazingly, the phone kept ringing from people that wanted us to hear what they had to say about their hometown radio station. Here are just a few of those comments:

  • In answer to the question, "what would Mt. Airy be like without WPAQ" a gentleman said, "It would be just another generic town with a robot radio station".
  • One listener explained that she has a radio in every room in her home. Each one is tuned in to WPAQ so that as she moves from room to room, she doesn't miss a minute of what's happening".
  • A local business woman spoke about the advertising dollars she spends with the station. Her thoughts are because the radio announcers know her, it gives credibility to her business, just merely by them mentioning her by name. She believes you couldn't possibly get that kind of endorsement from a big city radio station.
  • Another caller, a long-time fan of Epperson and his station, shared she is a widow and her days are very lonely. She said just listening to the announcers at WPAQ is like having a friend in her home every day.

Ken White, making the live broadcast sound good on WPAQ

Ken White, making the live broadcast sound good on WPAQ

But What About the Music?

WPAQ's main musical focus is bluegrass music, which is not surprising due to its location in the part of the country where string music began. To showcase this music which is indigenous to the Blue Ridge mountains, the station hosts the popular live radio show, the Merry Go Round. Every Saturday, from the stage of the historic Earle Theater in downtown Mt. Airy, WPAQ broadcasts the show featuring local talent performing gospel and bluegrass music.

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It is the 2nd longest running live radio broadcast in America, running behind the world famous Grand Ole' Opry, which is broadcast live from Nashville.

During my recent visit to the Merry Go Round, the audience was entertained by the Reed Island Rounders performing songs like "Old Cow Crossing the Road", "Flowers from the Fields of Alabama" and "St. James Infirmary Blues", which was my favorite.

You can feel the excitement when the lights go dark and the "on the air" sign lights up!

The Reed Island Rounders Performing on the Merry Go Round Live Broadcast on WPAQ

Reed Island Rounders at the Merry Go Round Live Broadcast

Reed Island Rounders at the Merry Go Round Live Broadcast

Another Visit to the Merry Go Round

A few months later, I once again visited the Earle Theater in Mt. Airy, North Carolina. My timing was perfect to catch the broadcast of the Merry Go Round program and to enjoy the music of another group, the F.A.R.M. T.E.A.M. I just had to find out what that unusual name was all about.

This bluegrass group is comprised of Mary Jo and Charlie Leet along with Gayle and Rory McTighe. The performers quickly explained to the audience the meaning of each initial in their name: Free Alliance of Recalcitrant Musicians Totally Eclectic About Music. Boy, that's a mouthful!

These talented folks put on a wonderful show which was simultaneously broadcast over WPAQ radio. They certainly lived up to their slogan, "Expect Unexpected Music".

The F.A.R.M. T.E.A.M. performing live on the stage at the Earle Theater and broadcasting live over WPAQ radio.  Far right: Tim Chadwick, official host of the Merry Go Round.

The F.A.R.M. T.E.A.M. performing live on the stage at the Earle Theater and broadcasting live over WPAQ radio. Far right: Tim Chadwick, official host of the Merry Go Round.

My Conclusion About Rural Radio

Big city dwellers probably wonder why anyone would listen to radio when the internet and television offer everything you need for entertainment and information. The answer to that question is based on where you live and what lifestyle you are seeking.

Rural America makes up about 17 percent of the population according to the White House Council of Economic Advisors. The state of North Carolina, where WPAQ is located, has one of the larger rural populations in the country.

My conclusion is that for the people who live within the reach of a local radio tower, their station is the heartbeat of their community. And the reason can be summed up in two words, credibility and reliability. It is all about knowing and trusting the people that are delivering the entertainment and information into your home. And, most of all, knowing they will be there when you tune in.

The golden age of radio is still alive and well and is considered to be a friend of rural America.

To experience local rural radio firsthand, go to and click on "Listen Live".

© 2015 Thelma Raker Coffone


Fiddleman on August 02, 2016:

Nice article ThelmC. Our local radio station only has a two hour bluegrass program on Saturday morning but it has a limited radius and don't turn up the power until 8 am. Fortunately we have a strong public broadcasting station in Spindale.

Ruth Gideon on July 20, 2016:

I would love to visit Mt. Airy. I have started to tune into WPAQ and listen to the live broadcasts on Saturday mornings. I enjoyed reading about radio in rural America.

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on November 01, 2015:

FlourishAnyway I thought just a couple of people would call in to talk to me and I was amazed when the phone rang non-stop for 3 hours! It really showed me the passion these folks have for their local radio and gave me the passion I needed to write this article. Thanks for reading and commenting.

FlourishAnyway from USA on October 31, 2015:

That's very cool that they allowed you air time to talk with their listeners. Well done.

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on October 28, 2015:

Thank you RayRay for your very nice comments. Look forward to seeing you!

RayRay2112 on October 28, 2015:

awesome article,,,well done. Hope too see yea all in May.

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on October 26, 2015:


I am so pleased you took the time to comment about your local radio experiences. I know Kelly Epperson (station owner) will be tickled to read your thoughts.

My husband worked at a small town AM radio station and I helped there with advertising, promotions, etc. We were so disappointed when the station went dark. Like you said, I'm glad the community supports WPAQ and vice versa.

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on October 26, 2015:

Wow, Thelma, a real rural radio station still on the air! I didn’t know any existed anymore. You really went all out on this article, even going to the station and interviewing the people via call-in show. Very very good hub.

I started my radio career in rural Ozark radio. How well I remember the old block programming we played. An hour of big band (this was a long time ago) a couple of hours of c & w, an hour of local and farm news, then back to a couple of hours of rock n roll. I remember the local flavor and how just calling in to the local Trading Post made one an instant celebrity. My dad got addicted to it, and we had to stop him from selling all our stuff. LOL

My son worked for the same station for about a couple of years and then quit broadcasting. When I asked him why, he replied that it just wasn’t the same since everything went automated. The local stations are having a very hard time making money these days because m any chain stores are moving in and have no loyalty to keep advertising moneys in the community. I salute WPAQ for staying on the air and the community for supporting it.

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on October 24, 2015:

Joseph thank you for your wonderful comments. Do you live in the Mt. Airy area or since you said you listen online, do you live far away?

Joseph Cromwell on October 24, 2015:

I've been listening to WPAQ online for about 5 years now. In fact I've met and become friends with several of the DJ's and I've even stopped and visited with them on the "Air". The music they play and how they conduct their programming is just HOW a " Hometown" Radio station should operate! They promote good clean fun, family values, and to keep God in your life every day. You feel right at home listening to WPAQ as you cook breakfast on top of the woodstove in a cast iron frying pan as the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers play " Shortnin' Bread". It don't get no gooder than that!

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on October 24, 2015:

Lipnancy it is very sad when a station goes dark as they say in radio lingo. Thanks for taking your time to read my article and for commenting.

Nancy Yager from Hamburg, New York on October 24, 2015:

Funny, I always listened to my home town radio station when I visited even though it never played my style of music. I must admit that I was very disappointed to see it go out of business.

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on October 23, 2015:

Jackie thanks for your nice comment. You can listen to it live via the internet by clicking on the link in the article. Thanks for following me.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on October 23, 2015:

Wow this was a great find! I wish I had been a part of the radio age, I love witnessing it through shows like The Waltons!

Mt Airy is almost in my back yard and one of my favorite places and I will see if I can pick up this station! What fun. Thank you!

Thelma Raker Coffone (author) from Blue Ridge Mountains, USA on October 23, 2015:

drbj thanks so much for reading and commenting. I will pass on your thoughts to Kelly Epperson. He will be very pleased to hear from you.

drbj and sherry from south Florida on October 23, 2015:

How nice to learn, Thelma, that radio is still thriving in some rural areas like Mt. Airy. It seem that Mr. Epperson of WPAQ has found a popular niche in that area. It's nice to know, too, that the more some things change, the more some positive things remain the same.

Thanks for your interesting research.

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